Entering Week 5 last season, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald had a plan to stop Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. It was a good plan: The Ravens held Cincinnati under 300 yards of total offense and won in Baltimore. If anything, his plan might’ve worked too well. After the Bengals’ 19-17 loss, their offense was never the same.
Macdonald had dared Burrow to string together one long drive after another. The Ravens’ coverage schemes discouraged the vertical routes that had made Cincinnati’s offense so explosive. If the Bengals wanted easy yards, they could no longer rely on field-stretching throws to wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. They’d have to run the ball into light boxes. So they did. Soon, Cincinnati had a template: Take what defenses give you. By year’s end, it had one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses.
As the AFC North rivals prepare for their Week 2 clash Sunday at Paycor Stadium, their first matchup since the Bengals’ narrow home playoff win in January, Macdonald’s influence on Burrow and Cincinnati has taken on new resonance. The Ravens’ clampdown on the Bengals’ offense late last season not only stamped Macdonald as a rising star in the sport but perhaps also inspired imitators.
In Cincinnati’s season-opening loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns, Burrow, dealing with poor weather, shaky pass protection and perhaps a lingering calf injury, finished with 82 yards on 45.2% accuracy, both career lows. He also saw a high rate of disguised coverages, which the Ravens had used to give Burrow fits.
“It definitely does look like they took some pages [from the playbook],” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Wednesday.
The Ravens and Bengals’ biannual (and sometimes triannual) meetings have an easy and irresistible billing: Lamar Jackson vs. Joe Burrow, two homegrown stars with record contracts and massive expectations. But the more interesting battles might be between the quarterbacks and the opposing defensive coordinators. Jackson has posted a QBR of 50.5 or lower in his past three games against Cincinnati and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
Burrow has fared no better against Macdonald. One year after lighting up former Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defenses, he could not solve his successor’s riddles. The Bengals won two of their three meetings last year, but Burrow’s performances against Macdonald’s defense were suboptimal: a 35.3 QBR in Week 5, a 26.2 QBR in Week 18 against a secondary missing some key contributors, and a 31.7 QBR in the wild-card round.
Against the Ravens last season, including the playoffs, Burrow and the Bengals averaged just 4.4 yards per play and minus-0.08 expected points added per drop-back, according to TruMedia — about as inefficient as the 2022 Carolina Panthers. Against every opponent on Cincinnati’s schedule, Burrow averaged 5.6 yards per play and an elite 0.14 EPA per drop-back.
“Their defense is tough, physical,” Burrow told local reporters Wednesday. “They’re very sound in their scheme. They do a great job of sending blitzes at you that you don’t see on tape before. They have a lot of great week-to-week game plan stuff, so you have to be able to adapt well to it. ... It’s going to be a challenge.”
The Ravens will have their hands full as well. Safety Marcus Williams suffered a potentially season-ending pectoral injury in Sunday’s season-opening win over the Houston Texans, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey is expected to miss Week 2 as he recovers from minor foot surgery. Rock Ya-Sin, who was expected to start opposite Humphrey, is still ramping up after suffering a minor knee injury in training camp.
But Macdonald did not have the benefit of good health last year, either. Williams hurt his wrist in the Ravens’ first game against Cincinnati. Daryl Worley, who’s since converted from cornerback to safety, started for the resting Marcus Peters in Week 18. Defensive back Brandon Stephens missed the regular-season finale and the playoff loss after being hospitalized with an acute illness. The Ravens still made it work.
“Defensively, when you’re out there, you’re a starter,” Worley said Wednesday. “The standard is still the standard. We have an expectation and a way that we play defense around here. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a one [on the depth chart], a three, a four — no matter what it is, when you step out on that field, you should play to the highest level.”
Under Martindale, the Ravens favored blitz-heavy game plans, unafraid to leave their cornerbacks on an island against star wide receivers. Worley, who joined the Ravens’ practice squad late in 2021, Martindale’s final season in Baltimore, called that system “easier” to execute in some respects but added: “At the same time, it doesn’t challenge you mentally.”
That was where the Ravens tested Burrow. What they showed before the snap rarely aligned with what they did after the snap. Single-high structures in the secondary, which sacrifice security out wide for better support in run defense, would mutate into two-high structures. Linebackers and safeties would blitz the right side of the offensive line as a defensive lineman dropped from the other side. Slot defenders would fly out to the sideline, undercutting deep routes.
A “perfect call,” as Worley described it, can “beat the offense.” For the Ravens, that meant making Burrow hesitate just long enough for the pass rush to get home, or for a throwing window to narrow.
“The hardest thing is when we don’t know what the coverage is,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback, said in a conference call last month. “And I think Mike did such a good job of making coverage look muddy or cloudy. You get quarterbacks to play with just a moment of doubt: ‘Is this Cover 3 or is it [Cover] 4?’ …. When you get quarterbacks to play with a little bit of that doubt, holding the ball in the pocket for 2.2 seconds in comparison to 2.4 seconds is almost an eternity. …
“Joe was such a smart player and Joe was such an almost piston type of player, where [it’s almost] like, ‘I know what the coverage is. Ball goes here.’ ‘I know what the coverage is. Ball goes here.’ ... When you’re like, ‘I don’t know what the coverage is,’ you just hold it for a little bit longer, and that allows a defender to drop just a step more or a rush to get a little bit closer to you. And so that was the most impressive thing.”
Cody Alexander, a former defensive graduate assistant at Baylor and author of several books about the sport, studied the Ravens’ defense this offseason for a post on his MatchQuarters Substack. Macdonald had impressed Alexander during his one year at Michigan, where his game plans revealed a flexibility uncommon among college coordinators.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that when he hired Macdonald, who’d coached under Dean Pees and Martindale in Baltimore, he knew he would be creative and collaborative. “He turns over every stone and comes up with ideas, but he also vets his ideas, and not just his ideas,” Harbaugh said. He also knew Macdonald’s schemes would be digestible; during the coordinator’s first camp in Baltimore, players claimed they knew not only their roles in the defense but also those of their teammates.
But Macdonald’s defense took time to evolve. There were early-season struggles in 2022. He acknowledged last Thursday that “you can’t just throw out the final entrée Week 1 to the guys in training camp … and expect it to work.” The more talent the Ravens acquired over the season, the more comfortable the defense’s regulars became in their roles, the more sand he could throw in the gears of quarterbacks like Burrow.
The challenge was in the presentation of it all. The less a defense shows before the snap, Alexander said, the more stress it can actually put on a quarterback. On five of the Ravens’ first six sacks or hurries of Burrow in the playoffs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, they lined up in the same static 4-2-5 alignment.
But on their first pressure, Queen blitzed on a “creeper” look as outside linebacker Tyus Bowser dropped into a shallow zone in the middle of the field. On their third pressure, defensive lineman Calais Campbell moved over one gap just before the snap as safety Kyle Hamilton blitzed from the slot, while outside linebacker Odafe Oweh retreated to the flat. On their sixth pressure, Campbell dropped into coverage, almost as a spy, while Williams, normally a deep-lying safety, zoomed to an underneath zone.
“I think that the way that they do it is: We’re going to run similar patterns, but we’re going to change the coverage behind it,” Alexander said. “And so the quarterback is constantly having to recalibrate what he’s doing. And I think that, to me, is where you kind of make your mark.”
The more the NFL learns about Macdonald, the more Macdonald learns about the NFL. After Sunday’s win, in which the Ravens’ much-doubted pass rush racked up five sacks against Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, Oweh said Macdonald is “only getting better.”
“Coach Mac, he’s a dawg,” Oweh said. “He’s always going to call something that’s going to get us free.”